Marilyn and the Mountains: Essay

New Work

By Diana Davidson

Snapshot I.

“Relax Miss Monroe. Try and look natural,” says the photographer.

The director snorts, “Not bloody likely.” He paces in front of an enclosure and flicks ashes from his ninth cigarette that morning.

Two young boys on rusty red bicycles watch from the other side of the fence.  They want to stare at her but instead they kick divots in the ground. Dust and brittle pine needles swirl under their feet. She smiles apologetically at the middle-aged man behind the camera, a Jasper local, trying to capture her against the morning sun as it shines on the mountains. She bites her lip. She tries to keep her composure so she doesn’t startle the horse.

She accepted a part in this movie because it shoots in the Canadian Rockies.  Hollywood’s hills are tiny compared to these mountains. She’s been to Canada once before, to shoot Niagara, and she posed by the roaring falls in a tight fuchsia dress. Her arms were covered in goose pimples and her fingers were numb from cold but she stopped her teeth from chattering so she could smile with an invitation. The studio made that picture – made her – cartoonish; they marketed her as a “force of nature” that couldn’t be controlled. She hopes this time will be different. She wants to believe that beauty can be untouched and wild, not bleached, plucked, pinched, and stuffed.

The horse is a real beauty. He has smooth cocoa hair and a cream blaze down his face. He is calm and proud and waits while people around him arrange tripods and shout instructions.

She looks at the teenager handling the horse. “Can you take his bridle off for the picture?”

The director snaps, “We can’t even trust you to remember your lines or be on time. We’re not going to let you pose free with a horse. God knows what will happen to it!”

Embarrassed, she smiles at the ground and grabs the reins to steady herself. She reminds herself she is good at this part. She knows the camera can make things flat or it can make things real. She has taught herself how to make the camera capture “Marilyn.”  She shifts her hips. She leans her exposed shoulder into the horse’s body and places her cheek against his soft neck. She takes in his warm earthy smell and gazes out at the distance.

“Okay Miss Monroe, we’re ready. One. Two. Three.”


Snapshot II.

The sun shimmers on Lac Beauvert as ducks negotiate sections of its icy teal water. I am lined up at a conference buffet in the Jasper Park Lodge ballroom one crisp April morning when I first see a photo of Marilyn in the mountains. I know that Marilyn stayed in Banff and Jasper the summer she filmed River of No Return. I’ve seen the movie, and still photos from it, but I’ve never seen any other photos of her in Alberta. While other guests help themselves to saskatoon pancakes and trays of smoked salmon sprinkled with purple onion crescents, I hold up the line stealing glances at Marilyn.

I cross the ballroom, put my plate on someone’s table, and come face-to-face with my obsession. She wears a simple white turtleneck, plain black cardigan and too-tight black dress pants and oozes glamour. She does not need an ivory halter dress or gold lamé gown to be luminescent. It is best that the photograph is in black-and-white. It would be hard to face Marilyn’s waxy red lips, platinum cotton-candy hair and creamy peach skin in Technicolor so early in the day. A Mountie is placed on either side of her: she has to be restrained, even on film. If the photograph were in colour, Marilyn’s open-mouthed, breast-tilted, teeth-sucking laugh might seem like a scream. She’s trying to push her way out of the image.

I need to know more. I make my way through the main ballroom, with its mounted deer and buffalo heads, and step up to the concierge. He’s an attractive young guy, probably just here for the summer, or maybe he’s a professional ski bum biding his days until the next snowfall. A middle-aged woman is flirting with him: she has bright orange fingernails and asks him where she should buy a fur coat.

When it’s my turn, I say, “Hi.  I’m wondering if I can buy a copy of the photo of Marilyn Monroe that’s hanging in the ballroom. Does the Fairmont sell copies?”

He smiles, “Sorry, it’s not for sale. It’s owned by Canadian Pacific Railway.” I imagine the photo sitting alone in a dusty archive in Ottawa. Seeing my disappointment, he says, “You know, if you’re looking for pictures of Marilyn in Jasper, I have the number of a local guy who sells them.”

I skip the conference’s morning session and drive into town. I’m frustrated when I have to slow down for a herd of moulting mountain sheep being photographed by the season’s first influx of tourists. I veer south of Connaught Drive and end up in front of a modest bungalow.  A man in his early forties welcomes me into his home while trying to stop two rambunctious dogs from knocking me over.

“Hi, I’m Keith. Come on in. Don’t mind them.”

Keith looks like someone I’d challenge to a round of darts over beers, not someone who holds the rights to a piece of history. His dark hair and mustache make him look a bit like an airline pilot (except he’s wearing faded jeans and a worn Aerosmith T-shirt). Photos of Marilyn are splayed out on the green felt of a pool table, reminiscent of the first Playboy centerfold where her nude body stretches out over red satin. Boxes of photos cover the floor and lean against the curved mahogany pool table legs.

“Take your time looking,” says Keith. “Any shot of Marilyn in Jasper is here. I bought the rights to the series from the original photographer.” Keith goes into the kitchen.

I spend an hour looking and decide to buy two photos. In one Marilyn stands alone, her leg perched on a rustic poplar fence, and she looks out into the distance. She smiles. In the second photo, she presses her face up against a horse and she looks pensive. The photos must have been taken on the same day because Monroe wears a cream peasant blouse and a pair of high-waisted jeans in both images. Her iconic platinum hair is in a loose bun, curls escaping, and she doesn’t appear to be wearing much make-up. In the happier photo, she looks out at a mountain range and ridge familiar to me. In the other photo, I can’t tell what she is looking at. The horse with a blaze on its muzzle looks straight into the camera.

“I think I’ve decided Keith,” I say into the kitchen.

He comes back with a cup of coffee in hand and looks at the photos I’ve put in front of me.

“Those two are nice. Good choice. You know, Saturday Night did an article all about these photos.”

Keith rifles through a nearby file cabinet and pulls out a copy of the magazine.  He flips through the pages and proudly points out the article. A different version of one of the photos I am buying, the one with the horse, is featured on the magazine’s cover.  Here, Marilyn is the quintessential cover girl and gives an open mouthed movie-star smile; she looks happy with the horse. I like the one I’m buying better.  I thank Keith, pay him, and leave. I drive back to the lodge as quickly as I drove into town: I’m anxious to look at my photos by myself in my hotel room.

When I get home to Edmonton, I keep her images in their cardboard sleeping bags for months. My frustrated husband takes charge and has the photos framed. He brings them home in their ebony borders. I decide to hang them in my ensuite. My dad would tell me that a bathroom’s humidity makes it one of the worst places in the house to hang photos. But I want these pictures to be private. Marilyn is my celluloid goddess, my twentieth-century Aphrodite.  She will be a reminder and a reflection. I can confess my sins and desires to her before I end and face the day. I’ve wanted Marilyn all to myself for a while.

Snapshot III.

It’s a February day and I’m home sick from school.  I can do little more than lie in bed.  Outside, it is nearly -40 and crisp. The sun hangs in the sky like bait on a fishing line and I can see the horizon of the Rockies from my upstairs bedroom window. Endless ambivalent snow-covered prairie stretches out towards the image of these mountains.  Looking out, it’s hard to understand why it takes Dad most of the day to drive to Jasper since we can see the mountains from our house.

I daydream about our annual summer holiday in Jasper. This summer will be one of our last trips as a family; I’ll start working during July and August once I’m in high school and can drive on my own. One of my favourite parts of going to the mountains is arriving. Whenever we enter the national park, Dad gets ready with his camera. He stops to take photos of formidable elk, grazing mountain sheep, and the occasional loping black bear. Mom chews her nails and tells me and my sister Heather to stay in the car as Dad climbs on rocks and bends under guard rails to get the perfect shot. Mom likes to get to our cabin at Pyramid Lake before sunset. Dad wants to add images to his collection: boxes of slides that he stores in a bedroom-turned-office closet. Sometimes these images make an appearance in our Christmas cards but most of them never make it out of their boxes.

This winter, I’ve been home for more than a week, confined to the house. I have a cold-turned-bronchitis but the serious illness facing me is depression (although I don’t know to call it that yet). I am relieved not to have to go to school for a few days and face the hallways full of other insecure and sometimes cruel teenagers. The solitude of being here in an empty house is both thrilling and frightening. I wish I felt better. I wish I wasn’t so scared that something awful is about to happen.

I’ve started to graze Dad’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his office. He collects books on mycology, histories of Ancient Rome, and photography. There’s also a shelf devoted to celebrity biography. He has three books about Marilyn Monroe and I devour them: Anthony Summers’ Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn, and Marilyn Monroe Confidential by her maid Lena Pepitone. Authors write that she had the vulnerability of a child packaged in a body that invited sex. Different books argue different theories, but it seems clear that Marilyn killed herself. Whether her overdose was accidental or planned, she ended her own life. I wonder what it would be like to feel that much pain. I wonder what it would feel like to be that trapped. I wonder what it would be like to lose all hope. I wonder what it would be like to feel that alone. I wonder what it feels like to believe that the only way to survive is to not. I do not know what any of this feels like yet.

All of these books have a thick section of photos in their middles. Marilyn is mesmerizing to look at. Two photos stand out for me. One is her famous nude pose on the red satin sheet that became the first Playboy centerfold. Her lips are shiny, her skin is the colour of milk and her hair is a warm gold. She is slim and soft and one of her breasts is visible. She looks young and sweet. At fourteen, I wonder if I would look this beautiful naked. The second photo that affects me is of Marilyn’s face after her autopsy. Her platinum hair is straight, flat, and looks wet against her cheeks. Her face is sunken like a deflated balloon. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is soft but unremarkable.  Even without the background of the metal table, the sheet that exposes her from the shoulders up, or the explanatory caption, I know she’s dead. I wonder if I will look like this dead. I shiver. Not because I am sick or anxious or because it is winter: I don’t understand why this photo was taken. Why take a photo of the dead? Who is it for?

Snapshot IV.

“Miss Monroe?”  A girl’s voice calls out as Norma Jeane opens the cabin’s squeaking screen door. Norma Jeane steadies herself on the crutches and comes face-to-face with one of the resort’s maids, armed with an old camera, shivering in the early morning mountain air. The maid is shorter than she is and has mousy brown hair. The girl wears no make-up and looks all of seventeen.

“I don’t want to cause any trouble, I mean, please feel free to say ‘no,’ or tell me to go away, but can I please take your picture?” The girl chews her lower lip.

Norma Jeane still has yesterday’s mascara on.  She tries to wipe its charcoal smudges from under her eyes. She runs her hands through her platinum hair to try and smooth it.

She spent the last few hours sitting in a red-slated wooden chair outside her hotel cabin in Jasper with her foot propped up. It is just after dawn. She listened to loons call to one another across the glacial lake as the summer sun lit up the morning. She stared into a council of poplar trees with their distinctive black markings and shimmering leaves that stretch to try and meet the tops of imposing evergreens. She’s barely slept.

Her ankle is throbbing: she sprained it and has to use crutches. It was not entirely an accident. A few days ago they were filming a scene in the Bow River and she had one of her moments. She and her costar stood in the water holding the edges of a raft made out of thin poplar logs. She can’t remember where the scene fits in the narrative of the film. She does remember letting go and felt the pulsing rapids pull her towards the silty bottom. She felt warm and safe like she was in the belly of a whale. Someone, one of the crew, yanked her to the surface and slapped her back, like a baby just born, so she would cough out the water. She emerged with only a damaged foot. The Director accused her of faking it to get out of work.

She is not sure what came over her. Things are better right now, she has something to live for: Norma Jeane’s in love with a baseball player.  He’s in New York and she misses him this morning. She misses the smell of his skin, the sound of his voice when he says her real name, the hardness of his body pressed against hers. Last night, she fantasized that he jumped on a plane and flew here to be with her; she imagined that it was just the two of them here, on a holiday. Maybe he will be the one she can have a baby with; it is easy enough to become pregnant but she now wants to become a mother. If she had a baby, she would have someone to love her just for herself, she would have someone to play with, she could stop making movies. She thought this project, this shoot in the Rockies, would be different. Out of the studio, she thought she would be stronger.  She thought she would be able to stand up to the bullies. But it is the same. She wishes the baseball player would come and rescue her.

She looks at the mountains; they have been here since this place stopped being an ocean. These mountains have emerged from collision and conflict. Plates crashing together below meant that there was no longer room and something had to rise above.  Convergence. Divergence. Faults and fissures.

Tiny patches of white cap these peaks even in the summertime. Snow seems as if it could tumble down without warning and unravel the quilt of fireweed blanketing the mountainsides. The snow is a reminder that beauty is transient. Winter will come again.  But right now it is summer. As the sun reaches its place over the horizon, she sighs.  The girl is waiting for her answer: “Can I take your picture?”.

“Of course you can,” the movie star smiles and glides her tongue across her teeth, puffing up her lips. “What’s your name?”

“Anne,” the girl answers shyly.

“Well Anne, where would you like me to pose?”

“Oh, anywhere you like Miss Monroe. You know better than me.” The young girl flushes with excitement.

“On the steps? Like this?” The blonde tilts her head back and thrusts her pelvis forward. She points her injured foot as if she were a ballerina. There are no lines to forget. It is just her and this girl and the mountains. She is Marilyn.

“Oh that’s lovely Miss Monroe. Thank you.”


One Comment

  1. Merrilee Gaudin
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely wonderful, Diana! I am so impressed with your writing. Another 100% for you.

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Diana Davidson

Diana Davidson lives in Edmonton with her husband, son, and Yorkie. Her essay "Ahead of the Ice" won the Writers' Guild of Alberta John Whyte Memorial Essay award in 2010 and will appear in Alberta Views in 2012. She is one of Avenue Edmonton Magazine's "Top 40 Under 40" for 2011.